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Remote consulting: Who wins and who loses?

“I sat in on workshops with clients in three different continents before lunchtime today,” one senior consulting partner told me recently. “The way I used to work—spending half my time on planes and in taxis—seems completely absurd to me now. It’s just a shame that it took a crisis like the pandemic to make us realise how inefficient we were being.”

That kind of sentiment seems to be the norm rather than the exception among consultants these days; there is an emerging consensus that the embrace of remote working brought about by COVID was, if anything, long overdue. Back in March of last year, there was some trepidation in the industry about how easily consultants—those archetypal jet-setters—would be able to continue generating results for their clients without being able to spend as much (or in many cases, any) time on location with them. Now, most industry leaders we speak to tell us that those worries have been thoroughly put to bed.

As governments around the world ramp up their vaccination efforts, thoughts are inevitably turning to what post-pandemic life will look like. And many consultants foresee a future in which remote working continues to play a major role in their day-to-day lives, even after it once again becomes safe to travel to clients’ locations. Increasingly, there is talk of a “virtual-by-default” model—a model in which visits to the client’s office will still happen, but will need to be justified by a compelling reason.

There is, however, another important perspective that firms will need to keep in mind while creating this new normal: that of their clients. While consultants, on the whole, seem pretty satisfied with how the transition to remote working has worked out, the experience of their clients has been more of a mixed bag. In our recent report on “The Consultant of Tomorrow”, for example, we surveyed 150 buyers of consulting services and found that they were split more or less evenly on the question of whether the adoption of remote delivery had had a positive or negative effect on project outcomes.

This is not to say that there are as many as half of all clients who fail to see any benefits of this new way of working; certainly, many are grateful that they’re no longer subsidising their consultants’ acquisition of hotel points and air miles. It’s just that clients seem to be equally cognisant of the downsides involved. In particular, many acutely miss the day-to-day visibility of project progress they once had.

Having said that, very few clients tell us that they’ve seen a noticeable dip in the quality of project deliverables since their consultants switched over to remote working. But consulting is often as much about the journey as it is about the final destination. Yes, your consultants might still be turning in high-quality deliverables, but if you don’t get to see how the sausage is made, so to speak, your ability to generate value out of those deliverables is going to be more limited.

Prior to the pandemic, many clients saw their consulting spend as, in some ways, an investment in their own workforce. “If our people can watch these consultants work and learn from them,” the thinking went, “then, in the future, we’ll be better equipped to tackle these kinds of challenges on our own.” But that kind of incidental upskilling becomes a lot harder in a world where direct interactions between consultants and clients are significantly rarer.

None of this is to suggest that firms are wrong to expect that remote working will remain relatively commonplace in the industry for the foreseeable future; just on a practical level, many clients will themselves be spending less time in their offices than they used to, after all. But it does mean that firms ought to recognise and acknowledge the fact that the benefits and the costs of the industry’s sudden embrace of virtual project delivery have not been equally distributed across both sides of the buyer/seller relationship. The challenge, moving forward, will be to create a model of delivery that preserves the cost savings and the efficiency gains firms have experienced this past year, but which also addresses the important reservations that many clients still appear to have.